My editor at The Times, the late Gerald Gold, gave me just one rule to follow: "Don't be snotty." Nowadays, he'd have said "Don't be snarky," but whatever the terminology it was good advice.
Here's Part One of three sections, arranged in order of publication date.
November 6, 1983
DISKS SPAN CENTURIES OF BRITISH MUSIC
By EDWARD SCHNEIDEREdward Schneider writes frequently on music.
A great deal of the music and verse associated with Victorian empire-building has now fallen from favor. Too much of it is sweetly sentimental or arrogantly jingoistic, characteristics that have lost their allure over the years. But the Empire had its appealing side too, and six recent recordings, all but one of them produced in the United Kingdom, show this side as well as other aspects of British music from 1610 to 1936.
Charles Villiers Stanford's ''Songs of the Sea'' and ''Songs of the Fleet'' are an example. These turn-of-the- century cycles are splendidly performed by the baritone Benjamin Luxon and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Norman Del Mar on an EMI/Angel recording (ASD 4401). Three of the five ''Sea'' songs are stirring paeans to naval glory (''So westward ho for Trinidad, and eastward ho for Spain!''), and Luxon sings them with bluff conviction. In the quieter songs and in the altogether more lyrical ''Songs of the Fleet'' with its Elgar- like choral writing, he sings subtly, sweetly and beautifully. Stanford was a teacher of Vaughan Williams and Holst, but in his own right, too, he is to be reckoned with.
John Stainer, on the other hand, made his mark as a teacher and organist rather than as a composer. Yet his oratorio ''The Crucifixion'' has remained fairly popular for more than 100 years, though it is a lugubrious affair. The performance on Arabesque 8135, by the Guildford Cathedral choir conducted by Barry Rose, is idiomatic, with both the singing and Gavin Williams's organ playing treading a fine line between soupiness and clarity. It will probably not, however, wean people away from their copies of the 1929 Richard Crooks-Lawrence Tibbett recording of the work.
Three hundred years earlier, the music of Orlando Gibbons was displaying intellectual serenity and supreme technical mastery at a time of rising political and religious tensions. The New York Consort of Viols, directed by Judith Davidoff, has recorded, on Musical Heritage Society MH-4707L, a group of Gibbons's fantasias and consort songs. These are enormously inventive in melody and texture, and the excellent playing is warm, smooth and clear. Only lapses of intonation in the songs, sung by the mezzo-soprano Mary Ann Hart, mar this release.
Those 17th-century tensions ultimately burst out into the English Civil War, and ''A Tapestry of Music for Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads'' on Musical Heritage (MHS- 4686X) presents music connected - sometimes tenuously - with Cromwell's cause. The singing is rough, but in character, and the arrangements by John Sothcott, as played by St. George's Canzona, are generally appropriate.
To move ahead to our own century, the symphonic poems of Arnold Bax may not have the theatrical color of Liszt's, but they paint their pictures efficiently and prettily. Apart from some ensemble problems heard in exposed unison passages, the Ulster Orchestra under Bryden Thomas does justice to four of these tone poems on a Chandos digital recording (ABRD 1066).
Along with the Stanford songs, the most rewarding disk in the present batch contains Benjamin Britten's early (1936) song-cycle, ''Our Hunting Fathers,'' with words written and arranged by W. H. Auden. The songs question man's view of his relationship with animals through sometimes chilling satire. The mature Britten can already be heard, clearly if not consistently, in this effective piece. The singing and playing on this EMI/ Angel record (ASD 4397), by Elisabeth Söderström and the Welsh National Opera Orchestra under Richard Armstrong, are telling, both in ''Our Hunting Fathers'' and in the six Britten folk song arrangements on side two. These orchestral arrangements of songs more familiar in the composer's settings for voice and piano are beautiful and expressive.
January 15, 1984
DANCE MUSIC- FROM LILTING WALTZES TO SENSUAL TANGOS
By EDWARD SCHNEIDEREdward Schneider writes frequently about recordings.
Music - at least traditional Western music - has always been closely intertwined with dance. Popular dance rhythms and forms, gentrified or modified or boldly adopted, find their way into all sorts of pieces not intended for the ballroom, from Bach cantata arias to Chopin waltzes.
For all that, not many people often pick up a disk of dance music pure and simple, apart from the odd string of Strauss waltzes or the occasional ballet score. Yet there are literally hundreds of recordings available to which you could kick up your heels if you knew the steps, among them four recent releases which range from the obligatory Viennese waltzes to sensual tangos and lusty 17th-century country dances.
The waltz is inevitably associated with Vienna, and it is lovely to hear a Viennese group, the Ensemble Bella Musica, tackling assorted waltzes, Ländler, polkas and so forth (Harmonia Mundi HM1058). The first selection, ''Die Romantiker,'' could be considered the quintessential Strauss waltz - except it was composed by Josef Lanner. The Ensemble, under Michael Dittrich, plays it to perfection, exploiting the rhythmic quirks of the performance style (such as the microscopically-delayed third beat: one, two . . . three) without ever stepping on the toes of exaggeration. The ''Cachucha Galop'' of Johann Strauss the Elder, too, is pure Viennese - it is about as Iberian as the Austrian capital's Spanish Riding School - while the medley of Schubert dances is treated more ''classically,'' as is only proper. This stylish record is highly recommended for those who have heard such music only on the full orchestra. Hearing it played by a string quintet plus flute and guitar will be a revelation.
Another small European group, the Stockholm Philharmonic Brass Ensemble, plays Renaissance and Baroque dances (BIS LP-223). Unfortunately, this disk is neither stylish nor particularly interesting, except possibly to faithful devotees of brass ensemble music. Everything is clearly and correctly played, but there is just too much legato uniformity here.
Ever since Nonesuch released its collection of authentic Latin tangos, ''The Tango Project,'' last year, another volume has been eagerly awaited, and it is here at last: ''Two to Tango/The Tango Project II'' (Nonesuch 79057). Volume II goes farther afield than the original, with Michael Sahl creating his atmospheric arrangements of tangos - and tangos manqués - by such un-Argentinian composers as Sigmund Romberg, Kurt Weill and Cole Porter. In such pieces the arranger/pianist really comes to the fore along with the accordionist William Schimmel, one of whose own tangos, ''Jane Avril,'' is included on the recording (Mr. Sahl himself, together with Eric Salzman, wrote one, too).
The variety of styles skillfully reflected here is wide. ''The Castle Innovation Tango'' - Castle as in Vernon and Irene, the dance team - has one foot in the ragtime camp, and the slithery flourishes and swells in the accordion part of Juan Carlos Cobian's 1928 ''Ladron'' are ravishing. The violin playing of Stan Kurtis, too, must be cited for its expressiveness, accuracy and incisiveness. Now, where is Volume III?
Quite different from the slightly naughty thrill of listening to the Tango Project is the good, clean, toe-tapping fun of hearing Jeremy Barlow's arrangements of country dance tunes from John Playford's 1651 collection ''The English Dancing Master'' (French Harmonia Mundi HM 1109). The melodies compiled by that London publisher (the Playford family published works of Purcell among others) are here rendered with great vitality and dust-free authenticity by Barlow's The Broadside Band, playing on a variety of ''people's'' instruments such as the metal-stringed cittern, the pocket-sized fiddle known as a ''kit,'' and the hurdy gurdy.
On side two, the development of some of the tunes over the years of the popularity of ''The Dancing Master'' is traced, but there is nothing academically stodgy about either side of this record, which will make you want to roll up the rug, face your partner and stomp your way through a rousing ''Half Hannikin'' or ''Jenny Pluck Pears.''
March 4, 1984
RECORDINGS; SURPRISES ABOUND IN 19TH-CENTURY ITALIAN REPERTORY
By EDWARD SCHNEIDEREdward Schneider writes frequently about recordings.
The history of the arts in Italy is a checkered and perplexing one. A positive hive of cultural and intellectual activity in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, Italy seems to have gone into an artistic decline - some would say a nosedive - toward the end of the 18th century.
That, at least, is the conventional wisdom and like much other conventional wisdom it is, broadly speaking, true. But there are 19th-century surprises in the present batch of recordings of Italian music, along with the Baroque beauties we knew about all the time but about which it is always nice to be reminded.
One thing that is no surprise is the greatness of Claudio Monteverdi. One facet of that greatness is highlighted on a digital recording from Erato (NUM 75068) with John Eliot Gardiner leading the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists in the composer's balli and balletti - dance music which fulfilled many dramatic and entertainment functions in 17th-century Italy. The examples on this disk are remarkable for the dramatic punch they pack. There are extracts from ''Orfeo,'' for example, which, although framed in terms of mere shepherds' dances, have a theatrical sweep of their own. This is admirably brought out in these performances, which are raucous when they should be but which never get sloppy. The singing is fine, especially that of the tenor Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, and better instrumental playing would be hard to imagine. It would be easy, however, to imagine a complete ''Orfeo'' by these forces; let us hope that such a thing comes about in due course.
Two near-contemporaries of Monteverdi are also the subjects of recent releases. Sigismondo D'India's ''Eighth Book of Madrigals'' is performed by The Consort of Musicke under Anthony Rooley on L'Oiseau- Lyre DSDL 707 (digital). These madrigals remind us of Monteverdi's in their emphasis on expressive but rarely extravagant word-setting and, indeed, in their high quality. The performances are in keeping with the thrust of the music: they are restrained and accurate, but never bloodless. A perfect example is ''Godea del sol i rai,'' whose florid contrapuntal writing for the vocal ensemble is executed with an effortlessness that makes it seem an absolutely natural means of expression.
Known in her time as a virtuosissima cantatrice - what we might call a vocal pyrotechnician - Barbara Strozzi also studied composition with the opera composer Francesco Cavalli, and while her singing is lost to us forever, we are left with eight published books of her works. In the selection of ''Cantatas'' charmingly sung by Judith Nelson with terrific accompaniment from, among others, William Christie, harpsichord (French Harmonia Mundi HM 1114), we hear Strozzi to have been a first- rate composer, approaching brilliance in her ability to make a poetic and dramatic statement within the confined framework of a brief cantata. On the analogy of Paganini, we might have expected the compositions of a famous virtuoso to be on the flashy side, but this is high-minded, beautiful music.
A record titled ''O dolce vita mia'' (Nonesuch digital D-79029) moves us back to when the Renaissance was in full swing. It features the mezzo-soprano Glenda Simpson and other members of the London Early Music Group under the lutenist James Tyler. It would be hard to say who dominates this record in terms of dazzling technique and musicianship: Tyler is one of our best lutenists, coming as close as anyone to playing a true legato on that plucked instrument and lending astonishing variety to the phrasing of even the most florid passages; then there is Alan Lumsden, whose recorder playing is nearly superhuman - he plays whole verses of the opening number in one breath, an exciting feat, especially when not performed at the expense of musicality. Glenda Simpson herself sounds as if she has this music in her bones. The music chosen is full of good humor and ranges from the roughly jolly to the elegantly lyrical.
More restrained are Cipriano de Rore's 1548 settings of Petrarch's stanzas on ''The Virgin'' (French Harmonia Mundi HM 1107). We hear pre-echoes of Palestrina in this music, performed a cappella by the Hilliard Ensemble with great solidity of voice, precision of intonation and fluidity of phrasing.
Another French Harmonia Mundi release (HM 1119) sheds new light on a somewhat more familiar paean to the Madonna: Pergolesi's Stabat Mater. It is usually performed with full orchestra and with operatic soloists such as Mirella Freni and Teresa Berganza, who have recorded it on Deutsche Grammophon. Here it is essayed by a boy soprano (Sebastian Hennig) and a countertenor (René Jacobs), accompanied by a small ensemble under Mr. Jacobs's direction. It comes off very well indeed, with Mr. Jacobs sounding far better than he does on some of his earlier recordings, his rich lower register (exploited to considerable effect in ''Sancta Mater'') recalling that of Alfred Deller in his heyday. Mr. Hennig can spin a remarkably long phrase for one so young.
We now approach the 19th century, and it is here that we come upon our big surprises. The first concerns Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889), otherwise represented on disk only by his Grand Duo for violin and double bass (he was a famous bass player in his day). Fonit/Cetra has released a full- throated but poorly recorded Radiotelevisione Italiana performance of his ''Messa di Requiem'' (LMA 3015), and it is quite a piece. Unlike the stereotype of the Italian composer cowering in the shadow of Verdi, Bottesini here demonstrates a more than passing acquaintance with the classics, along with a nearly-operatic sense of how to keep an audience from losing interest. He did, of course, write operas, and it would be good to see one recorded.
The other big surprise has to do with poor old Antonio Salieri, maligned as a spiteful also-ran and too often assumed to have been a bad composer. Three of his works are performed very nicely by the London Symphony Orchestra under Zoltan Pesko on CBS 37229. The centerpiece of the recording, a four-movement symphony titled ''Il Giorno Onomastico'' (''The Name Day''), is genuinely impressive, displaying mastery of melody, form, harmony and orchestration - plus something more: inspiration. The final piece, a set of orchestral variations on ''La Follia,'' composed in 1815 and bearing very little resemblance to anything composed in the classical period, reminds us that Salieri did not die until well into the 19th century, 1825 in fact, and that he was among the teachers of the young Franz Liszt - which is quite a surprise in itself.
April 1, 1984
EARLY INSTRUMENTS HAVE A CHANCE TO WEAVE THEIR SPELL
By EDWARD SCHNEIDEREdward Schneider writes frequently about recorded music.
With few exceptions, today's musical instruments have long histories, and although they have evolved over the centuries, the basic shape and tone of most of them has not altered beyond recognition: While the 16th-century watchmaker who crafted the first ''Nuremburg egg'' would not be able to make head or tail of the tiny digital timepieces of today, his neighbor the instrument maker would be mildly perplexed but not altogether confounded by the sight and sound of a modern violin.
In some cases, of course, the changes have been more radical than in others. Brass instruments, for instance, were totally revolutionized by the introduction of valves (and by certain playing techniques), which liberated them from being able to sound only the notes of the natural harmonic series.
Among a number of recent recordings of music for instrumental soloists, two feature horns in their pre-valve state. The first (Titanic Ti-94) contains chamber music by composers of the Classical period played by Jean Rife on a valveless horn of the early 19th century. The disk opens with Haydn's pleasant E-flat Divertimento for horn, violin and cello. The performance, by Miss Rife, Daniel Stepner, violin (playing the only Stradivarius to have been restored to its original proportions) and Fortunato Arico, cello, sounded at first hearing to be choppy in places, but listening to it again smoothed over the rough spots: The first impression might have been caused by the sound of the recording itself. (The two other pieces were recorded in different rooms and sound just fine.)
In Beethoven's F-major Sonata for horn and piano (op.17) and the Grand Sonata in the same key by Ries, Miss Rife is ably accompanied by Martin Pearlman on copies of pianos of the period, and their playing is masterly.
Horns have always been associated with the hunt, and the Munich Parforce Horn Players remind us of this on an Orfeo digital release (S 034821 A) of arrangements of horn calling (including some by Rossini, of all people). The absolutely pure natural tuning used by this ensemble is haunting, but it takes some getting used to, as does the music itself: one keeps waiting in vain for the allegro to begin. This is an interesting release, however, which instrumental and hunt devotees will want to hear.
After all that weird intonation, it is a relief to turn back to the more relaxing sound of the flute as reinvented by Theobald Böhm during the last century. On the 100th anniversary of his death in 1881, a memorial concert was held in Munich, featuring works of who else but Böhm himself. The concert was recorded on Orfeo digital (S 018822 H, two disks) and reveals the surprising fact that the reformer of the transverse flute was also a perfectly decent composer and arranger. Most of the music in the album is based on someone else's material, but the assorted fantasies and variations are skillfully shaped and uniformly engaging. Böhm's music as represented here is essentially salon music, but there is nothing wrong with that.
On the subject of woodwind instruments, a very nice collection of Italian sonatas for oboe has been released on French Harmonia Mundi (HMI 1096). Michel Piquet plays an oboe of the late Baroque period (with a wider compass and different construction than the earlier Baroque oboes we generally hear on ''old instrument'' recordings) in music by Besozzi, Castrucci, Geminiani and Sammartini. The sound of this transitional instrument is ''tamer'' than that of earlier oboes, and the performances are polished and elegant.
Another 18th-century composer with surprises up his sleeve is Johann Melchior Molter, who is represented by three concertos on ''The German Baroque Trumpet'' (Musical Heritage Society MHS-4780M). Every one of these works has some rhythmic or melodic twist which makes it stand out; the Telemann works on the other side of the record are pale by comparison. The conductorless La Follia Instrumental Ensemble generally plays cleanly, but there are times when a guiding hand might have made for a better result.
Our final instrumental disk is especially rewarding. It is a Nonesuch digital recording (number 79058) of three works for violin and piano by the contemporary composer/pianist William Bolcom, performed by Sergiu Luca and the composer. Bolcom's writing for the violin is wonderfully expressive and idiomatic, and Luca's playing lives up to it admirably. The principal piece here, Bolcom's Second Sonata, begins with a lazy, haunting, regular blues-like figure in the piano, over which the violin enters with sustained tones. At first these seem random, but as the movement progresses through an angular middle section and a return to the earlier material, all the pieces fall into place. The energetic fourth movement is titled ''In Memory of Joe Venuti''; there is little doubt that the style of that great jazz violinist, full of nuance and solid technique, has been an influence on the composer, and this is heard, too, in the other works on this disk: the rhapsodic Duo Fantasy and the ''Concert Variation'' on Bolcom's rag, ''Graceful Ghost.'' The music is at once charming and meditative, and it deserves to be widely heard.
May 13, 1984
FRENCH ROMANTIC REPERTORY YIELDS DIVERSE RICHES
By EDWARD SCHNEIDEREdward Schneider writes frequently about recorded music.
French Romantic music is a cornucopia of lollipops, bonbons, radio-program themes and many other more substantial riches. All that diversity is reflected in an armload of recordings recently issued on both French and non-French labels.
Full of variety in itself is a recording of songs by Ernest Chausson (RCA/Erato digital NUM 74059), beautifully sung by Jessye Norman. It contains songs with piano, orchestral and chamber ensemble accompaniment, thus providing a cross-section of the composer's solo vocal music, even a viable one-disk library of these songs. The principal item is the ''Poème de l'amour et de la mer,'' settings of two long poems (of questionable literary interest in themselves) separated by an evocative orchestral interlude. In the ''Poème,'' Miss Norman is joined by the Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra under the Swiss conductor Armin Jordan; in the ''Chanson Perpétuelle'' she is accompanied by the Monte Carlo String Quartet and Michel Dalberto, piano; and Mr. Dalberto provides admirable support in five songs from the Opus 2 ''Melodies.'' All these collaborations are happy ones. The singing is rich and sensitive - in a word, idiomatic.
The Monte Carlo Philharmonic, this time conducted by Jeffrey Tate, is also featured in another vocal recital: Barbara Hendricks singing arias from French operas (Philips digital 410 446-1). Miss Hendricks emphasizes the lyrical side of this repertory, and such selections as ''Depuis le Jour'' from Charpentier's ''Louise'' fare better than, say, the energetic second part of Teresa's aria from ''Benvenuto Cellini'' by Berlioz.
At least in the context of current phonograph records, to think of Berlioz is to think of Colin Davis, who is rounding out his Berlioz cycle on Philips, seeing to the little bits of the catalogue that he has not yet recorded. On Philips 9500 944, Mr. Davis conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and the John Alldis Choir, with vocal soloists José Carreras and Thomas Allen, in ''Tristia'' (Opus 18) and ''Lélio'' (Opus 14b). These are both composite works, which Berlioz put together from various songs and other works. The semidramatic ''Lélio'' is here recorded without the spoken narration linking the six numbers; the lack of unity among the pieces is thus especially apparent. While Mr. Allen does a fine job in the vigorous ''Brigand's Song,'' Mr. Carreras is not really in his element here, with his big voice overwhelming the piano accompaniment of ''Le Pêcheur'' and his blunt style not meeting the expressive needs of other movements.
More consistently satisfying performances are found on RCA digital release XRC1-4689: the 46-member National Arts Centre Orchestra of Canada, under Eduardo Mata, giving us elegant, finely detailed readings of Georges Bizet's popular Symphony in C and Mozart's Divertimento in D, K.251 - which, judging by the small number of available recordings, is not as popular as it should be. The Bizet symphony has a very classical tinge to it, and the small Ottawa orchestra has just the right sound to do it justice; the occasional flaws in the playing do not mar the overall success of this disk.
Equally successful is yet another recording of Debussy's ''La Mer'' and ''Three Nocturnes,'' this one by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Colin Davis (Philips digital 6514 260). Mr. Davis imbues the works with a drive that is too often lacking, but without injecting uncharacteristic harshness. There are five or six other recordings of the same pair of works, but this is among the most enjoyable.
Two other British conductors are represented in this group of recordings: Andrew Davis and Neville Marriner. On Vanguard digital VA- 25019, Mr. Marriner leads the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in graceful readings of works by Debussy, Fauré, Ibert and Ravel. The latter's ''Le Tombeau de Couperin'' moves somewhat more quickly than usual, but the feeling is refreshing, never rushed; there is always plenty of time for careful shaping.
Andrew Davis's contribution is works for piano and orchestra by Ravel and Fauré, with the soloist Daniel Varsano (Pro Arte digital PAD-173). Ravel's Piano Concerto in G is a very amusing work, with delightful use made of the orchestra throughout; there are moments of serene beauty too, in the adagio second movement. The performances leave little to be desired, particularly in this wonderfully recorded pressing: the musically irreproachable reading of the Fauré ''Ballade'' by Jean Hubeau (RCA/Erato STU 74195) - where it is joined by other works of the same composer - suffers by comparison, but only because of the Erato disk's less clear reproduction and relatively narrow dynamic range.
The Ravel concerto is not the simplest of works for the pianist, but Saint-Saëns's Piano Concerto No. 2 is even more exhausting: it is nearly nonstop piano, much of it without orchestral support. Bella Davidovich handles the task heroically on a recording with the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Neeme Jarvi (Philips digital 6514 164), where it is paired with the colorful ''Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini'' by Rachmaninoff. Her playing is always exciting but never excessive, which is the ideal combination.
If any composer epitomizes the ''bonbon'' side of the French Romantics, it is Emmanuel Chabrier, and the tastiest of his confections have been put together on an RCA/Erato digital recording (NUM 75079), played by the Orchestre National de France led by Armin Jordan. Some of these pieces, like ''España'' and ''La Bourée Fantasque,'' have been much recorded, but others are relatively unfamiliar. The Orchestre National sounds gorgeous on this record, with far richer and better coordinated string playing than it used to feature; that is but one of many reasons for adding this charming recording to your collection.
June 3, 1984
THE SOUNDS OF THREE RUSSIANS
By EDWARD SCHNEIDERProkofiev, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich: three Russian composers whose lives followed three different courses after the upheavals of World War I and the 1917 revolution. Sergei Prokofiev left Russia during the war and lived in Paris from 1922 to the early Thirties, when he returned home to become an important figure in Soviet music. Sergei Rachmaninoff departed in the year of the revolution and spent the remainder of his life in the West, dying in Beverly Hills, Calif., in 1943. Dmitri Shostakovich stayed through all the artistic vicissitudes of the Soviet era, inevitably affected by them but maintaining his own, impressive musical voice.
While in Paris, Prokofiev had composed several scores for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes (his ''The Prodigal Son'' came, appropriately enough, only a few years before his return to Mother Russia's ample bosom); among his Soviet compositions too, ballets are important. ''Romeo and Juliet'' and ''Cinderella'' are certainly among the most rewarding of Prokofiev's works, as much for their effect in the theater as for their intrinsic musical value.
While ''Cinderella'' is performed often by major ballet companies, complete recordings have lately been unavailable. Now there are two digital versions in the catalogue, one from EMI/Angel (DSB-3944) and one from London (410 162-1LH2 - each two disks). The first is performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under Andre Previn and the second by the Cleveland Orchestra led by Vladimir Ashkenazy, who is doing more and more conducting nowadays. The contest is a close one. Ideally, in fact, one would like to choose individual movements from each set, but in balance Previn's is the more satisfying version; his beautifully expressive shaping and the LSO's splendid playing win the day over the relatively low-key reading by Ashkenazy and the Cleveland.
Quite different from the romantic lyricism of ''Cinderella'' is the defiant brashness of the piano works of Prokofiev's student days: ''Visions fugitives,'' Op. 22, comprises 20 brief sketches (some of them less than a minute long) written over a period of several years. Some are funny, some dreamily evocative - all sound rather French. Along with another student work, ''Sarcasms,'' and the simpler, less appealing ''Pensées,'' Op. 62, they have been very nicely recorded (on Musical Heritage Society MHS 4791A) by Sedmara Zakarian, who captures every nuance of this varied collection.
Prokofiev's piano works include several on a larger scale, among them five piano concertos (not all of them available on disk at present). The third, in C major, is given a pleasant reading by Cécile Ousset and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Rudolf Barshai on EMI/Angel ASD-1077851, which, however, lacks some of the sparkle and magic called for by this work (on side two is Poulenc's melodious Piano Concerto).
When we talk of pianist/composers, of course, we cannot omit Rachmaninoff. He too wrote five piano concertos, one of which remains unpublished, and three of them have been newly, gorgeously recorded: the first and fourth by Zoltan Kocsis with the San Francisco Symphony under Edo de Waart (Philips digital 6514 377) and the third by Jorge Bolet with the LSO under Ivan Fischer (London digital LDR-71109).
These are all ''typical'' Rachmaninoff, sharing an almost overwhelming romantic élan and an irresistible flow of lyricism and lush instrumentation, rooted in the same Russian melodic tradition (so hard to define, but so easy to recognize) as virtually all the other works mentioned here. Both Bolet and Kocsis easily meet the substantial demands placed upon them, playing with all the requisite fire and brilliance, and both recordings are very clear and well balanced. The Philips release, however, is more likely to fill a gap in your collection: there are something like 16 other readings available of the third concerto, but recordings of the first and fourth are comparatively sparse.
Also characteristic, if a little less stupendous, is Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 1, which joins modal, Gypsy, Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic melodic elements in a colorful, emotional, and well-constructed work. It is given a fine, suitably turbulent performance by Amsterdam's Concertgebouw Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy (London digital LDR 71103).
The same composer's ''Trio élégiaque,'' written on the death of Tchaikovsky, is cast in a different mold altogether. It is a muted, nearly Brahmsian work - it is Rachmaninoff for people who don't like Rachmaninoff - and the Eastman Trio does it full justice on a Turnabout release (TVC 37019), the only available recording of the piece.
The suites for two pianos are not as far off the beaten track, but they are not terribly well known. The first suite (''Pictures,'' Op. 5) consists of four short pieces, each based on a poem. There is a bit of tone painting (nightingales twittering over rippling evening breezes, and church bells you will recognize from ''Boris Godunov'') and there are some pretty textures, as there are in the second suite (Op. 17), with its spooky tarantella. The playing by the sisters Göher and Söher Pekinel is crisp and delicate, with impeccable ensemble (on DG 2531 345).
Shostakovich, the one who stayed, wrote two cello concertos, both for Mstislav Rostropovich (who left). The first of them, in E flat major, was recently recorded - along with Samuel Barber's cello concerto - by Raphael Wallfisch and the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Geoffrey Simon (Chandos digital ABRD 1085). The outer movements are marked by incisive rhythms - they share a sharp four-note motive, for instance - and ingeniously devised orchestral sounds, and the work is of interest and beauty. Wallfisch does a lovely job in the more intense lyrical passages, but there are intermittent pitch problems and a lack of warmth in the biting first movement. The recording quality is high, with natural balances, a wide dynamic range and clean surfaces.
Edward Schneider writes frequently about recorded music.
August 12, 1984
RECORDINGS; CHAMBER MUSIC: A PRIVATE TREAT GONE PUBLIC
By EDWARD SCHNEIDEREdward Schneider writes frequently about recorded music.
If you look up ''chamber music'' in a typical dictionary you are likely to find references to ''small room'' or ''domestic environment.'' Well, there may be historical grounds for that sort of definition, but nowadays it is only the most fortunate of music lovers who get to hear a string quartet in someone's living room.
But the fact is that chamber music went public quite a long time ago. This is illustrated by the string quartets Haydn wrote in the 1790's for concert performance in London. In the ''Salomon'' quartets - named after the celebrated violinist and impresario who organized and played in the London premieres - the subtle detail of quartets written earlier for the cognoscenti of Vienna gives way where necessary to the broad effects required to make the pieces work for a somewhat wider audience. They are no less great for that, and two of them (Opus 71, number 3 in E flat, and Opus 74, number 1 in C) have been recorded in exuberant, polished performances by the appropriately-named Salomon String Quartet, on authentic instruments of the period. To date, not very much chamber music has been recorded on period instruments; this disk (Hyperion A66098) is a convincing argument that there should be more.
Talking of exuberant, polished performances, Deutsche Grammophon has released a digital recording (DG 410 652-1) taped live at the 35th-anniversary concert by the Amadeus Quartet - still thriving with its original four members intact! Any technical flaws that may be associated with live recordings are absent from this one: the sound is every bit as good as that of the finest studio recordings, and the performances are stunning. The Amadeus plays Beethoven's third Rasoumovsky quartet (Opus 59, number 3 in C) and Haydn's D minor quartet, Opus 76, number 2 (the ''Fifths'' quartet), and they sound as if they are discovering the music anew. Listen to the reading of the lyrical second theme of the first movement of the Beethoven, with its meticulous attention to details of rhythm and dynamics, then to the frenzied fugal finale. These performances exude life, and we can only hope that there will be many more to come.
The younger, but no more youthful, Juilliard String Quartet, too, has been recorded live, in Volume Three of CBS's Beethoven quartet series (CBS digital 14M 37873, four disks). Their Library of Congress audience coughs rather more than the Wigmore Hall crowd that attended the Amadeus concert, but the pressings are clean and clear, and the performances, while not impeccable and by no means surpassing the best of the many available - from the Amadeus quartet, among others - are just fine, with transitional passages handled in a particularly canny way so as to lead the listener beautifully from one section to the next. In another multivolume series from CBS, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax have been recording the Beethoven sonatas for cello and piano. Volume 2 (CBS digital IM 39024) contains two very different works: sonatas numbers 3 (Opus 69, in A) and 5 (Opus 102, number 2 in D). For one thing, the first has no real slow movement, while the second has a splendid, full-blown adagio. There are scattered technical lapses here, but the musical sense is unerring, right from the haunting statement of the opening theme of sonata number 3, where the piano is played so delicately that it might almost be a harp, and where the cello playing is magically expressive.
Contrasting works are also featured on a release of chamber music for horn, with Ferenc Tarjani, horn, Gabor Takacs-Nagy, violin, and Desco Ranki, piano (Hungaroton SLPX 12473). The recital opens with Brahms's Trio in E flat for Horn, Violin and Piano, Opus 40, a lush piece with a high emotional charge. The playing, too, is highly charged: at once tense, sweet and rich, with all the élan needed for the driving finale. The Brahms is followed by Beethoven's Opus 17 horn sonata in F, and there the players adopt a lighter touch altogether and come up with a lovely, quite idiomatic performance. The record is filled out with Richard Strauss's unimpressive Andante for horn and piano.
Traditional chamber music, of course, did not stop with Brahms, much less with Strauss. A number of recent releases, some more interesting than others, cover a variety of musical forms and styles. The Amsterdam Nonet has recorded (on Nonesuch 71412) Prokofiev's Overture on Hebrew Themes, in its original version for chamber ensemble, Janacek's ''Concertino,'' and the 19th-century Swedish composer Franz Berwald's Septet in B flat. The group plays very well, but none of the music is gripping. The same can be said of the Pantheon recording of Chausson's Opus 21 ''Concert'' (PFN 2101) played by Sylvia Rosenberg, violin, Maria Luisa Faini, piano, and the Chester String Quartet. The piece is nearly 40 minutes long and is uniformly pale.
Far more varied are a couple of recordings of chamber music from the English-speaking world. ''American Classics for String Quartet'' (Musical Heritage Society 4823H) includes quartets by Henry Cowell and Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland's Two Pieces for String Quartet, and a scherzo by Charles Ives, all played in masterly fashion by the Composers String Quartet. The Cowell and Barber quartets never flag either in interest or beauty; the Copland selections are early works, but will not be mistaken for those of any other composer, and it is always a treat to hear Ives managing to make sense of what would have been a musical mess in lesser hands.
It was an even greater treat to hear the early chamber music of Benjamin Britten recorded by Derek Wickens, oboe (whose playing must be singled out for its excellence), John Constable, piano, and the Gabrieli String Quartet with Kenneth Essex, viola (Unicorn digital DKP 9020). Britten wrote these works in his early 20's, and it is plain that he had already found a voice. They are thoughtful, atmospheric pieces, with flashes of freshness that make them all the more pleasing. It is hard to decide what stands out among them, but the Phantasy in F minor for string quintet offers especially wondrous textures, and the semiprogramatic ''Temporal Variations'' for oboe and piano show an impressive technique, the piano writing in particular reminding us of later works such as the ''Songs and Proverbs of William Blake.''
October 28, 1984
POETRY TURNED TO AFFECTING SONGS
By EDWARD SCHNEIDEREdward Schneider writes frequently about recorded music.
W. S. Gilbert's Sir Joseph Porter certainly knew what was good for the British seaman: Among his first questions to the crew in Act I of ''H.M.S. Pinafore'' is, ''Can you sing?'' When he learns that they can ''hum a little,'' he hands out copies of a glee he has composed ''for the use of the Royal Navy'' and urges them to hum it at their leisure - which they do. Along with great philosophers throughout history, Sir Joseph was aware of the power of song to affect the mind and the spirit.
Whether it is the words, the music or the combination of the two that accounts for this power or whether it has something to do with the communicative directness of the human voice is a question for the academicians, but there is no denying that music and poetry have always joined simultaneously to express and to move the emotions.
Not all vocal music, alas, exemplifies this synthesis, but a gratifyingly large number of the pieces on a batch of recent recordings do, perhaps none more perfectly than those composed by musicians who were also poets, such as the Elizabethan lawyer, physician, poet, composer and esthetic theorist Thomas Campion.
For a start, Campion's poetry is full of the sheer beauty of language, and his settings of his own works are calculated to highlight the verses, not to obscure them with musical devices. The creamy-voiced English tenor Ian Partridge joins with Jakob Lindberg, lute, in a recital of songs by Campion and his contemporary John Dowland on a Hyperion release (A66095) titled ''It Fell on a Summer's Day.'' The program is a good one, well balanced between the two composers and among various types of songs, from the melancholy to the comic. Partridge is not the most passionate of singers, but, as even the most passionate of Elizabethan art is mannerly, his approach could hardly be bettered; Lindberg's lute playing is top-notch. A lovely record, not for Renaissance enthusiasts only.
Somewhat more esoteric is another Hyperion disk (A66087), ''The Mirror of Narcissus,'' containing works by the 14th-century Frenchman Guillaume de Machaut, performed by Gothic Voices under the leadership of Christopher Page. Here again we have a consummate poet, but as a composer Machaut was far more important in his age than Campion was 300 years later. The works range from simple solos (such as ''Foy Porter,'' sung wonderfully by the soprano Emma Kirkby) to the most complicated motets, in which three separate texts are juggled adroitly. In the polyphonic pieces, the singers articulate so clearly that it is reasonably easy to follow what is going on - no mean feat - and they relish, but do not exploit, the crunching dissonances that are among the features which make this music so interesting and so fascinating. The a cappella performances, incidentally, run counter to recent practice, but research has shown that unaccompanied voices were indeed sometimes used in the period in question.
Research has also led some scholars to think that at least one number in Monteverdi's ''L'Incoronazione di Poppea'' was composed by Benedetto Ferrari, who had written an opera which included the text of what we know as the final duet of ''Poppea''. Whether or not this hypothesis is true, it is a good enough excuse to combine solos and duets by Monteverdi and Ferrari on a French Harmonia Mundi record (HM 1129) featuring mezzo-soprano Helga Müller Molinari and counter-tenor René Jacobs, accompanied by William Christie, harpsichord, and others. The Monteverdi works are fairly well known, but Ferrari's solo cantata ''Queste pungenti spine'' is quite a find. Written over a repeating bass-line, it is full of musical delights, and it is sung to great effect by Mr. Jacobs, whose rich lower register is a particular joy to hear.
Plenty of great music has been written under royal or noble patronage (think of the Brandenburg Concertos and so much of Haydn's work), so it cannot be the mere fact that Michel Lambert was court composer to Louis XIV that makes his Airs de Cour (French Harmonia Mundi HM 1123) so slight. They are written for from one to five voices and instrumental ensemble, and are prettily enough performed by Les Arts Florissants, directed by William Christie, although one misses the precision of, say, the Machaut disk.
For precision, however, combined with sensitivity, we can turn to the Hilliard Ensemble, led by Paul Hillier. On an EMI/Angel digital release (Reflexe series, number S-38082) they perform sacred motets by the early 15th-century English composer John Dunstable. In his liner notes Mr. Hillier compares Dunstable with such 20th-century minimalists as Steve Reich. he has a point. It is music you can let wash over you, music you can meditate to.
While no poet, Henry Purcell knew a thing or two about songs, since he earned at least a portion of his living as a singer. One of the most famous contemporary accounts of his activities, in fact, tells of the ''incredible Graces'' with which he embellished the counter-tenor solo in his own Ode on Saint Cecilia's Day of 1692. Two modern-day counter-tenors have recently recorded fine disks of Purcell songs: Paul Esswood (on Hyperion A 66070) and Andrew Dalton (on Etcetera ETC 1013). At their best these are probably the finest English-language art-songs since the Renaissance, and they run the gamut from unadorned lyricism (''Fairest Isle'') to ecstatic religious fervor (''Lord, What Is Man?''). Both singers do very good work here; if we had to make this into a competition, Esswood's gorgeous voice and famous breath-control would be up against Dalton's great delicacy and sweet pianissimos. In any event, both excel in the more elegiac selections (for liveliness and drama listen to Jeffrey Dooley and Howard Crook on Nonesuch 71343), although Dalton sometimes errs in the direction of crooning.
December 9, 1984
BARRY TUCKWELL PLAYS MOZARTEdward Schneider writes frequently about recorded music.
By EDWARD SCHNEIDER
''The horn, the horn, the lusty horn is not a thing to laugh to scorn,'' sings Shakespeare's forester in ''As You Like It.'' No, indeed: It is usually the poor horn player who is mocked, not his instrument. It is not the horn's fault that it is devilishly difficult to play and that an extremely high level of proficiency is required before a player can acquit himself with reasonable honor - let alone play consistently and securely well.
With musicians like Barry Tuckwell, of course, questions of technique simply do not arise - for the listener, at any rate. This artist recently recorded three disks of Mozart's music for the horn, with the English Chamber Orchestra (directed here by Mr. Tuckwell); Sheila Armstrong, soprano; John Ogden, piano; the Tuckwell Wind Quintet, and the Gabrieli String Quartet. Those disks (British London 410 283-1) are distributed here in good clean British pressings by Polygram Special Imports. Moreover, the first disk, devoted to the four horn concertos, has been released domestically as a digital compact disk (London 410 284-2).
(It should be noted that there is room for an additional 20-odd minutes of music on this CD and that further works from the ''mother'' set could have been included. If Denon can get the whole 71 minutes of Schubert's ''Winterreise'' onto one CD (38C37- 7240) without charging a premium price, then other manufacturers can surely make more of an effort to take advantage of the compact disk's capacity.)
Throughout the release, the performances are quite simply delightful; the clarity of the orchestral playing in the concertos and in the wonderful Sinfonia Concertante is exemplary, and all the soloists are musicians of the first water. If one word had to be chosen to characterize these recordings, it would have to be ''elegant''; the lush calm of the adagio of the Sinfonia Concertante exemplifies this, but it is no less true of such rousing passages as the third concerto's final allegro and the forceful allegro moderato of the quintet for piano and winds (played here just a shade too quickly). And the virtuosity in the showier selections (such as the last movement of the quintet for horn and strings, in which the horn is considerably more than the first among equals) is dazzling.
It is interesting, incidentally, to compare the sound of the CD with that of the digitally-mastered phonograph record. In not-very-scientific A-B tests, the analog disk sounded slightly edgier than the CD and was somewhat, but not much, noisier; I was always able to tell which source I was hearing.
Among the curiosities in the collection are a number of fragments from uncompleted or lost concertos, some reconstructed by Mr. Tuckwell, and three duets for two horns. Since no other horn player is named on the label, we must assume that, thanks to modern technology, the second horn, too, is played by Barry Tuckwell, who could not ask for a better partner.
February 24, 1985
CATHOLIC TASTE GIVES VARIETY TO A NEW LABEL
By EDWARD SCHNEIDER
Edward Schneider writes frequently about recordings.The American composer and educator Gunther Schuller is best known for his advocacy and practice of third-stream music, which brings together jazz and ''serious'' musical elements and which reached a rarefied level of establishment acceptance when Mr. Schuller's opera ''The Visitation,'' which made use of third-stream techniques, was performed some years ago by the Metropolitan Opera. In essence, Gunther Schuller's philosophy calls for equal treatment of all different types of music - jazz, pop, ''classical,'' ethnic - and this is highly laudable. Similarly laudable is the aim of his music publishing house, Margun Music, to bring this catholicity to its catalogue, which features an interesting mixture of jazz, blues, third stream, ''classical'' - including early music and works by past and present American composers - and teaching materials.
This same catholicity is apparent in the discography of a newer Schuller enterprise, GM Recordings of Newton Centre, Mass. Initial releases have run the gamut from Bach to modern jazz, via tuba and double bass works by Mr. Schuller and Vaughan Williams (on a disk titled ''The Underdogs of the Orchestra,'' GM 2004).
The very first GM recording (GM 2001/2, two disks) is clearly intended to be a historical document: not only does it feature the complete solo piano music of Robert DiDomenica, but it features it in live premiere performances by the composer's wife, Leona DiDomenica, an accomplished pianist with a thorough commitment to and understanding of her husband's work. And understanding a work like the lengthy ''Sonata After Essays'' for piano with soprano and baritone voice, flute, alto flute and tape (1977) is no mean feat. The six- movement sonata takes its inspiration mainly from writings by Charles Ives (its title is a play on Ives's ''Essays Before a Sonata''), Emerson, Hawthorne, Alcott and Thoreau, and while technically and sonically impressive and full of lyricism and musical interest, it is heavily burdened with programmatic symbolism, most of it comprehensible only to the listener following along with detailed program notes. The other four works recorded here are considerably more accessible, and it can only be wished that the rule of including only first performances had been bent in the case of Four Movements for Piano and Sonatina for Piano, where the 1959 recordings sound very thin, making it difficult to hear musical details.
Frederick Moyer's piano disk (GM 2005) was recorded under more conventional circumstances and, indeed, is a more conventional disk, containing a serene, accurate reading of Bach's Partita no. 5 in G, BWV 829, and a performance or Rachmanioff's Variations on a Theme by Corelli, a piece which is almost impressionistic at times, and in which Mr. Moyer shows a wider variety of moods and colors.
Vocal and organ works of the New England composer John Stewart McLennan are the subject of GM 2003. Three Songs from James Joyce and Three Songs from Edith Sitwell are the work of a colorist; a mood of pensive calm is skillfully set in these neatly constructed and composed songs, but whether they are the best possible settings of this poetry is another question. (Talking of the poetry, the poorly proofread text leaflet omits a full line from Joyce's ''Nightpiece.'') The good performances are by Beverly Morgan, soprano, and Christopher O'Riley, piano. The organ works on this recording, played by James David Christie, are the ''Triptych'' and the aptly-named ''Ceremonial Music.'' Thematic material and structure are nicely handled, and grand use is made of the massive sonorities of the full organ.
Far more intimate are two jazz disks from GM: ''Life Cycle,'' featuring Tom McKinley, piano, and Edwin Schuller, bass (GM 3001), and ''For This Gift,'' with the guitarist Michael Bocian (GM 3002). Most of the cuts on the latter recording are totally improvised, with not even a melodic cell pre-established. Gunther Schuller observes in his liner notes that at this level of improvisation ''Content is technique, and technique is content.'' Both content and technique are smashing, even where, as in the title number, Mr. Bocian has acted more in the capacity of a composer. ''Life Cycle'' shows us another, very attractive, side of Tom McKinley who, under his full name of William Thomas McKinley, is a highly-regarded ''serious'' composer.
If GM Recordings is blazing its own trail by cataloguing and marketing such a wide variety of music in a ''nondiscriminatory'' way, that is not to say that interesting new music is not to be heard on other labels big and small.
Bridge Records, for instance, has recently released Volume 2 of its ''New Music with Guitar'' (BDG- 2004). Three of the five items on this disk were written for the featured guitarist, David Starobin. For the most part, they make use of traditional guitar technique and musical language, as in Elliott Carter's ''Changes,'' made up of tightly-linked contrasting sections, and Toru Takemitsu's gentle ''Toward the Sea'' - and what could be more traditional for a guitar than a take-off on a fandango, such as ''Another's Fandango'' by John Anthony Lennon? Barbara Kolb's 1979 ''Songs Before and Adieu,'' in which the able Mr. Starobin is joined by Rosalind Rees, soprano, and Susan Palma, flutes, is rather more adventurous, incorporating weird images of alienation and death from five poets including E.E. Cummings and Guillaume Apollinaire.
Strange poetical imagery abounds also in Joseph Schwantner's ''Magabunda,'' orchestral settings of four poems by the Spanish-language American poet Agueda Pizarro, paired (on Nonesuch digital 79072) with William Schuman's ''American Hymn.'' The cycle was written for the soprano Lucy Shelton and the St. Louis Symphony, who perform it to great effect on this recording under Leonard Slatkin. The settings are of operatic breadth; in this, as in their composer's interest in and ingenious use of percussion instruments, they remind one of some of Britten's output. The mystical orchestral heavings in section two, ''Blancolvido,'' and the wildness of the final song, ''Magabunda,'' are particularly striking.
The Schuman work was also commissioned by the St. Louis ensemble. It consists of an introduction and five sections in which a melody initially used by the composer in the mid- 1950's is first set out and then subjected to variations. The orchestra led by Mr. Slatkin does a fine job: pacing and phrasing are exemplary; the string tone is good; brass and percussion playing is precise.
Equally craftsmanlike, but cast in a far less conservative mold is Karlheinz Stockhausen's ''Atmen gibt das Leben. . .'' (''Breathing Gives Life. . .'') (DG 410 857-1). It receives a fine performance by the youthful- sounding North German Radio Chorus of Hamburg, conducted by the composer. While the orchestra of the same broadcast organization participates in this work, it is the chorus which is the star here; the first version of the work did not even include an orchestra, although many of the instrumental effects are telling. Complex rhythmic counterpoint; biting declamation; an eclectic text, sometimes humorous, sometimes slightly shocking, which juxtaposes Divine power with the properties of subatomic particles: all this makes for a balanced, expressive work.
March 24, 1985
VIOLIN VIRTUOSOS COME IN MANY STYLES
By EDWARD SCHNEIDEREdward Schneider writes frequently about recordings.
If Orpheus, the ancient Thracian lyre player whose music moved the very forces of nature (but who got into trouble with Pluto anyway), was considered to have been the top virtuoso of his day, it is no surprise that he is described in Shakespeare's ''King Henry VIII'' as a lutenist, for the lute was the quintessential virtuoso instrument of the Elizabethan age. Nearly 300 years later, in Offenbach's ''Orfée aux enfers,'' we meet the musician once more, this time as a violinist: again no surprise. Many students of the matinee-idol syndrome would agree that, although facing tough competition from the pianist, the great violinists - with their flashy techniques and flashing eyes - have long occupied a special place in the hearts of the public.
The term ''virtuoso,'' of course, means different things to different people. For many it implies only great ability, while for others it carries with it all sorts of images (some positive, some not) concerning rapport with audiences and the media, and a certain magical personal style. Whatever one's own definition, it is likely that the young American violinist Elmar Oliveira, the winner of the 1978 Tchaikovsky Violin Competition in Moscow and of the 1983 Avery Fisher Prize, will fit the bill.
If any doubt remains, just read the title of his Vox/Cum Laude recital (D-VCL 9057, digital) - ''The Virtuoso Violin'' - in which, along with Robert McDonald, piano, he plays such diverse crowd-pleasers as the Sarasate/Heifetz ''Malaguena,'' a Paganini ''Cantabile'' and three preludes by Gershwin, again arranged by Heifetz. And does he ever play them! There's plenty of pizzicato; there are hair-raising harmonics; there are glittering glissandos. But there's more: high musicianship; full, beautiful tone; great emotional content. The Gershwin, for instance, is extremely moving. Any vulgarity on this disk is the grand, heady vulgarity of the music itself.
There are those for whom even that vulgarity is too much, and another Vox release (D-VCL 9065, digital) features Mr. Oliveira and Mr. McDonald in first-rate performances of the Brahms D minor sonata, opus 108, the Bloch ''Baal Shem,'' and the Bartok Rumanian Folk Dances. Listen in the Brahms to the intensity of the first movement and to the haunting delicacy of the third; and the reading of the Bloch never slips into sentimentality. Mr. Oliveira and Mr. McDonald, incidentally, will be appearing in a recital April 14 at Avery Fisher Hall in the Great Performers series. The recital is part of the Avery Fisher Prize.
Trained in Czechoslovakia, Shizuka Ishiwaka, too, has many of the virtuoso's attributes, and she shows them off on Supraphon 111 3196 G, ''Famous Violin Encores,'' which contains an interesting group of short, shimmering items by such composers as Paganini, Wieniawsky and Novacek (the celebrated ''Perpetuum Mobile.'') The best thing on the record is Castelnuovo-Tedesco's concert transcription of Figaro's aria from ''Il barbiere di Siviglia,'' full of musical jokes, including a terrific reinterpretation of a Rossinian crescendo. If Miss Ishikawa's tone does not have the warmth of Oliveira's, the playing is impressive, revealing ample musicality and skill; the release is great fun.
There is impressive violin playing also to be heard - in less amusing repertory, alas - on Hong Kong Marco Polo 6.220152 and on Vox/Cum Laude VCL-9061. On the former we are treated to Respighi's ''Concerto Gregoriano'' and ''Poema Autunnale'' in dramatic performances by Takako Nishizaki with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra under Choo Hoey; listeners who like Respighi will like this record. The Vox release is devoted to the music of Karol Szymanowski (his second violin sonata). Fredell Lack's playing carries the emotional charge of these pieces, both of which are good examples of 20th-century Romaticism, of more emotional and textural than melodic interest.
From 20th-century Romanticism to 19th-century Classicism: The opening of Mendelssohn's D minor violin concerto sounds just like Haydn, especially when played by a small orchestra, the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra, as it is on a digital compact disk from Teldec (8.43061 ZK). The 18th- century illusion does not last, however; the final allegro is far more romantic and showy. The violinist Thomas Zehetmair is equal to the varied challenges of the concerto (which is paired in this release with the same composer's A minor piano concerto, well played by Cyprien Katsaris). The clarity of the recording and the smallness of the ensemble, unfortunately, reveal a number of orchestral imprecisions.
The Baroque era had its own violin virtuosos and the music for them to play. Giuseppe Tartini comes to mind, both as a player and as a composer; he wrote and performed hundreds of violin concertos and sonatas in the course of his brilliant career. Two of the concertos, in E minor and G minor respectively, have been recorded by Salvatore Accardo and the English Chamber Orchestra (Philips 9502 089). They are played with great flair, much rhythmic bite, and a particularly lively tone which is accentuated by the rather forward microphoning of the solo violin.
Nothing less than ideal balances are heard on a gorgeous Archiv recording of Bach's sonatas for violin and obbligato harpsichord (413 326-1, two LP's) played by Reinhard Goebel, violin, and Robert Hill, harpsichord. Everything is just right - tempo, style, tone (period instruments are used) - and the emphasis is rightly placed on the equality of the two instruments in these wonderful, colorful sonatas. In view of the fact that far too many performances of Bach on Baroque violins are marred by poor intonation and other serious flaws, it is worth mentioning that Mr. Goebel's playing is technically, as well as stylistically, impeccable.
For those who prefer more ''traditional'' Bach, Musical Heritage Society has released (on MHS 4878Z) hearty, full-bodied performances of concertos in A minor and E minor and the double concerto in D minor, played by Hugh Bean and Kenneth Sillito with the Virtuoso of England, conducted by Arthur Davison. If the readings are somewhat wanting in delicacy and subtlety, they are nonetheless pleasurable for that.